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Welcome to the next installment of our interview series where folks share their thoughts about Big Travel with Small Money!
Miles & Points Interview: Award Travel Wisdom
Aurelien co-founded Award Travel Wisdom with his wife Anna-Lisa to show folks how to start earning points and how to use them for amazing trips. The two of them love to travel and are currently on an 8 month trip around the world. He’s also giving away a $50 gift card today!
How and when did you start collecting miles and points?
My first experience getting miles was probably when I took a senior class trip to Europe when I was 18, I believe on Northwest Airlines. Surprisingly, I didn’t actually start actively collecting miles and points until 9 years later!
I was living in the Bay Area in California at the time and met a new friend who told me he had just finished flying to Boston and back that day. I asked him why he would do that, so he explained that he was doing a mileage run.
I was intrigued, so he proceeded to introduce me to the amazing world of miles and points. I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card in May 2011 and since then have managed to collect, along with my wife, about 2 million miles and points.
Why did you start your blog? What’s special about it?
I started our blog almost exactly a year ago with the goal to help my friends and family learn more about miles and points. I created a half dozen posts on the topic last February, and then got extremely busy with work and the new house we purchased, and didn’t touch the blog for almost six months.
I finally found the time to start posting again after my wife and I started an 8 month trip around the world. At that point we shifted the focus of the blog somewhat. We still write posts about how to get and use miles, but we have also written a lot of posts about the places we’ve traveled and the fun things we’ve done on our adventures around Southeast Asia.
Most of the bloggers in the Miles and Points field focus on getting the cards and booking the trips; we want to give our readers an idea of where they might want to actually go with their miles, and what to do there. I’m also a bit obsessed with American Airlines Explorer Awards and have a few posts on that topic.
What’s the one single thing people can do to get more miles?
Get married and buy a house; you’ll have enough expenses to meet the minimum spend on a whole lot of cards! Speaking more seriously, I will say that the true key is to make sure your credit score is as high as possible.
My wife and I were both very lucky to have parents that taught us to be intelligent with our money and credit, so when we started signing up for credit cards seriously, it was no problem at all to apply for as many as our spending patterns would allow.
The other huge benefit some enthusiasts overlook is the fact that having the higher score allows you to apply for cards in between app-o-rama’s, or skip them entirely. I’ve found that this flexibility has allowed me to take advantage of amazing offers, such as the American Express Platinum 100,0000 offer that was available publicly for just a few hours last January.
What’s your most memorable travel experience?
My wife and I have been extremely blessed to have many amazing travel experiences in the 11 years we’ve been together. However, our current trip easily takes the cake. After getting married in Hawaii 2 years ago, we decided to put off our honeymoon for at least a year to save up some money and build up more points.
We initially wanted to organize ourselves to take 4 to 6 weeks off to travel around Thailand and Southeast Asia. A year went by and I wasn’t in a position to be gone from work for so long, so we decided to commit to leaving my job this October and going to travel the world for as long as we wanted.
We settled on 8 months due to the fact that I wanted to be back home by mid-June to watch the World Cup! We actually just reached the halfway point of our travels a week ago and have an update post discussing what we’ve done so far.
What do your family and friends think of your miles & points hobby?
I think most of our friends are pretty impressed at this point, as we’ve had fun posting pictures of our adventures and business class seats. Interestingly enough, my best friend and some of our family members were flying free with points collected through credit cards for multiple years.
Anna-Lisa’s parents actually booked us tickets to Europe way back in 2004 with their American Airlines miles. It’s pretty amazing how long I took to join in the fun. Since starting, I’ve definitely surpassed their level of effort and dedication, to the point that I now help both families book many of their award flights.
Is there any tool or trick which you’ve found especially useful in this hobby?
There are lots of extremely useful tools. Awardwallet.com is probably my favorite as it allows me to quickly see all of my balances for the 40+ programs I’m signed up for. It also is a great place to easily see all my account numbers.
Recently, I’ve also come to really appreciate the KVS Availability Tool, which helps find award availability on almost every airline. The interface is clunky and takes some time to get used to, but it was invaluable for me when I was putting together our Explorer Award a month ago. They do charge for the premium version, but I found the $20 for 2 months of access to be well worth it.
What was the least expected way you’ve earned miles or points?
The miles we earned for the following story weren’t unexpected, but the timing was certainly fortuitous. My wife and I were living in the Bay Area at the time and needed to take a trip out to Kauai in order to check out some options for our wedding plans and simply get the lay of the land.
As it happened, Alaska Airlines was just finishing up a promotion where you could earn 25,000 for taking a round trip between the Bay Area and Hawaii. We traveled literally the last weekend of the promotion, and signed up for 1 of their credit card’s special 30,000 miles offers to end up with over 60,000 miles each. Two years later, those miles turned into my 1st Business Class flights as we took Emirates on our way to Asia.
What do you now know about collecting miles and points which you wish you knew when you started out?
I’m the type of person that does a lot of reading before jumping into something full on, so I don’t have any huge stories here. I do laugh when I look back at my time before learning the ropes and wonder why I ever signed up for a Delta miles credit card. I have about 70,000 miles with Delta that I collected before I was in the game.
Apparently I booked on Northwest a lot. This was one of my first epiphanies when I started learning; miles from different programs have different values. I haven’t collected any Delta miles in almost 3 years, aside from one trip where we didn’t have any other reasonable options.
What would your readers be surprised to know about you?
I’m a huge fan of board games, specifically Euro-style games such as Settlers of Catan and Imperial 2030. We probably have a collection of about 30 to 40 games currently, and I have 6 Kickstarter titles which will be waiting for me to play when we return.
My wife and I are vegetarians that enjoy the sometimes challenging work of finding places to eat on our travels. Thankfully, most of Southeast Asia does a great job of naturally catering towards vegetarians, so we haven’t gone hungry these past few months.
Sometimes it is a bummer not being able to try that mystery meat on a stick you find on every street, but we grew up this way and thus don’t like the taste when we’ve tried it. We write about our favorite vegetarian places on the blog.
Any parting words?
I strongly urge anyone that has been considering it (and those of you that haven’t) to take a few months out of your life and go on an extended trip somewhere you haven’t been before. Traveling to new places expands your own personal boundaries and reminds you that people everywhere are, as they say in Thailand, “same, same, but different.”
I feel extremely blessed to be living at a time when the internet makes it possible to learn as much as you desire about practically any subject. Just a few years ago, the only way to learn about the tricks of this trade would have been to randomly talk to someone else that was doing it, or learn slowly through trial and error. Now, anyone with the will and reasonable credit can quickly learn what to do simply by reading websites such as Million Mile Secrets, Flyertalk and more.
Traveling around the world, it quickly becomes clear just how lucky those of us in the miles game are. We happen to be part of the 4% of the world which has access to all these amazing credit card offers thanks to the fact that we live in the United States. We also happen to be part of a much smaller subset of people which have been able to enjoy the perks of traveling at hugely discounted rates.
Take advantage of this opportunity while it lasts and go enjoy your life.
Aurelien – Thanks for sharing your thoughts on having Big Travel with Small Money!
If you’d like to be considered for our interview series, please send me a note!